Etta James, one of the great voices of the 20th century, who fused R&B with gospel and blues and scored landmark hits with “At Last,” “Tell Mama” and “All I Could Do Was Cry,” died today from complications related to leukemia. She was 73. James had been battling health problems for years.
James had an enormously turbulent personal life with numerous periods of drug addiction and poverty, but she channeled all of that heartache into her music. “There’s a lot going on Etta James’ voice,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2008. “A lot of pain, a lot of life, and most of all, a lot of strength. She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next. As raw as Etta is, there’s a great intelligence and wisdom in her singing.”
Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938, James was largely abandoned by her teenage mother at a young age, and was raised by her grandparents and foster families. She formed the the doo-wop singing group the Creolettes with her friends in the early 1950s, and they scored a minor hit with “Roll Me Henry” in 1955.
James signed as a solo act to Chess Records in 1960, kicking off the first great period of her long career. Working with producers Harvey Fuqua and Ralph Bass, she landed on the charts with “My Dearest Darling” and “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Leonard Chess heard tremendous potential in her voice, and in 1961 he had her record the ballad “At Last” with a string section. The song became a massive hit, and it remained her signature song for the rest of her career.
Despite her success, in the mid-Sixties James started to use heroin, which began to have serious effects on her career. At various points she was committed to a Los Angeles psychiatric hospital, though she still occasionally scored hits – most notably the R&B classic “Tell Mama” in 1967.
In the Seventies, James hit the club circuit to support herself. The Rolling Stones took her on tour in 1978, which exposed her music to a whole new generation of rock fans. That year she signed to Warner Brothers and cut the classic LP Deep in the Night with Jerry Wexler. Her drug habit resumed in the Eighties, but a 1988 stay at the Betty Ford Clinic set her on a better course. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
James continued to tour until illness sidelined her a couple of years ago. She made headlines in 2009 when she criticized Beyoncé’s performance of “At Last” at President Obama’s inauguration, but the public didn’t realize that she was suffering from dementia at that point.
In 1997, James spoke with Rolling Stone about her life. “Life’s been rough,” she said. “But life’s been good. If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would live it the exact same way.”